How mindfulness can help children and parents deal with their anger.
My son sat at the table, body noticeably calmer than it had just been, but eyes still darting from my husband's face to mine. Recently emerging from his room, he was coming down off of the rage that had gripped him once again. The anger that had led him to scream in our faces, kick the chair, and run away to his quiet place. What prompted it? I could tell you a hundred different scenarios and they would all be true at one time or another. But, in his words, my seven-year-old said, "Mom...I know you might be aggravated because you've heard this before, but when I get mad my body just reacts and I don't have time to think."
I told him that I wasn't irritated by his truth, but impressed. Many grown men do not have that level of insightfulness about their emotions or can they articulate it. It wasn't that he was purposefully trying to hurt us or be disrespectful. His brain went right into fight or flight when big emotions show up and he hadn't learned how to slow that down yet. Fear, injustice, and anger are all feelings a seven-year-old may face throughout their day in one way or another. We all face them from time to time... I reassured him that he had mastered the first step - knowing where growth or learning could happen. "That's why I meditate and do yoga," I explained. "To help put some distance between my feelings, thoughts, and actions." He expressed his desire to learn to be more mindful and control his anger better.
That night, I read with him two children's books about anger that I love: Anh's Anger and Steps and Stones by Gail Silver. We've read these books before during his early childhood, but the message spoke to him once again. In the first story, Anh is angry that he had to stop playing blocks to have dinner. This grandfather tells him to go sit with his anger. In his room, a little red creature identified himself as "Anh's Anger" and together they danced, hit the ground, took big forceful breaths, and stomped around before sitting and taking slow, deep breaths. Anh's Anger faded way and he was ready to rejoin his Grandfather and talk about what happened calmly. In Steps and Stones, Anh's Anger shows up on the playground when his friends won't play with him. Anger is ready to yell and hit his friends, but Anh tells him to slow down and think. They count their steps as they walk very slowly together, breathing in and out. After 20 steps, Anh's Anger fades away and he is ready to talk to his friends about it.
By having a visual representation for anger, my son was able to see it as something separate from himself that he could work with. With a brief discussion, he realized that he wasn't the only one who had big feelings...everyone felt angry from time to time. It didn't mean he was a bad person or that it was wrong to feel angry. It was more about how to be with the anger until it fades away, rather than trying to stop it or let it control his life.
We made a plan that night. Together, we will take some of the ideas that Anh had (dancing, stomping, counting steps, breathing) and write them on a list to help him remember what to try when in the moment. He said once he was calm, he wanted to draw a picture of what his Anger looked like and see if it changes over time. I also offered to work through the mindfulness activities in Thich Nhat Hanh's book Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children with him and his brother.
As for me, I will continue to sit with my own anger as well. To rely on my breath to lengthen the space between my initial fight or flight or conditioned reaction and the words I choose to speak and the actions I choose to take. To not push Anger away and repress it to pop out later bigger and meaner than before, but to gently sit with it and watch it soften until it finally fades away.
This work isn't just for children, but for all who wish to live a more peaceful life. What an honor, privilege, and great responsibility to be doing it alongside our little ones as we both grow.
Amber Sparks is a children, family, and mommy/baby yoga teacher, child care provider, and homeschooling mama to two boys, ages 5 and 7. She writes about looking within, creative expression, and parenting with heart at www.heartwanderings.blogspot.com.